French fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent died of a brain tumor in Paris last night at the age of 71. Born in Algeria in 1936 (when it was still a French colony), Saint Laurent got his big break when he began designing for the house of Dior, then was appointed head designer when Christian Dior died of a stroke in 1957. Because Dior was responsible for almost 50% of France’s fashion exports at the time, then 21-year-old Saint Laurent’s success became crucial for the economy. He would play a pivotal role in making Paris the capital of an international fashion industry.
Saint Laurent opened his own couture house in 1961 after leaving Dior to complete his military service. Over the course of his 50-year career, he revolutionized women’s clothing by breaking down the distinction between masculine and feminine.
Perhaps best known for introducing the “Le Smoking”, a tuxedo for women, in 1966, Saint Laurent considered himself an advocate for women’s power. In 1968, this caused a scandal in Manhattan when New York socialite Nan Kempner wore the tuxedo to dinner at La Cote Basque restaurant. The maitre d’ told her she couldn’t dine in a pair of trousers and Kempner promptly dropped the pants and proceeded to dine in the jacket, which had instantly become a very short dress.
He would later open his pret-a-porter or ready-to-wear line which brought pantsuits and gender-neutral jackets and pants to everyday lives of women. This major shift in fashion coincided significantly with the changing socioeconomic role of women as millions began entering the workforce in the late 1960s and 70s. The change was so revolutionary that most women in Western cultures today don’t even think twice about wearing jackets and pants.
A full retrospective of his work opened at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts just last Thursday. It will be on view through September 28.
A farewell tip of the hat to a magical man.